South Pass City sprang into existence as a stage and telegraph station on the Oregon Trail during the 1850s. The site of this first settlement was about 9 miles south of present-day South Pass City at what is today known as Burnt Ranch. Burnt Ranch was located where the Emigrant Trails crossed the Sweetwater River for the last time and ascended toward South Pass.
In 1866 gold was discovered in the vicinity, and a year later prospecting began on what would become the Carissa mine. Prospectors and adventurers quickly arrived and founded what is today known as South Pass City. Within a year the community's population had swelled to about 2,000. One of those who arrived in 1869 was Esther Hobart Morris. In 1870 she was the first woman in the U.S. to serve as a Justice of the Peace. In 1869, William H. Bright, a saloon owner and representative to the Wyoming Territorial Constitutional Convention, introduced a women's suffrage clause into the territorial constitution. When the constitution was approved by Territorial Governor John A. Campbell in December 1869, Wyoming became the first U.S. territory to recognize a woman's right to vote.
Within a decade the city's population shrank dramatically as the large gold deposits that had been hoped for failed to materialize. By the mid-1870s South Pass City's population was reduced to about 100 people. Over the next century the population of South Pass City declined further and many of the city's homes, mercantile stores, hotels and saloons fell into disrepair. A few businesses continued to operate in South Pass City with the last of the pioneer families finally moving on in 1949.
At the end of the 20th century steps were taken to renew the community and turn it into a historic site. As a result the community today consists of two areas: South Pass City, in which a handful of residents live, and South Pass City State Historic Site, which preserves more than 30 historic structures dating from the city's heyday in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1970, the community was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The town has been extensively documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey in drawings and in photographs by HABS photographer Jack Boucher.